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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: "Popeye"

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#1 of 44 OFFLINE   StuartGalbraith



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Posted June 12 2003 - 05:44 PM

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DVD Review – Popeye
Director, Robert Altman; Producer, Robert Evans; Screenplay, Jules Feiffer, based on the comic strip by EC Segar; Director of Photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; Art Director, Wolf Kroeger; Editors, John W. Holmes and David A. Simmons; Music & Lyrics, Harry Nilsson.
Cast: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, Bill Irwin, Linda Hunt, Dennis Franz.
A Paramount Pictures Corporation / Walt Disney Production. A Paramount Pictures Release. Metrocolor. Technovision. 113 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG. Released December 12, 1980.

DVD: Released by Paramount Home Video. Street Date June 24, 2003. $19.99
2.35:1 / 16:9 anamorphic
Dolby 5.1 and Dolby Surround.
Special Features: None.

Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV

Robert Altman's film of Popeye was considered a disaster of epic proportions when in was new, but 23 years of generally mediocre comic book/strip adaptations have diminished its once-legendary status. Today, Popeye is simply dismissed, a relic of Hollywood's first generation of High Concept filmmaking. (And, for all its criticism, the picture didn't do too badly at the box office, and has made more money than any Altman film to date.) The film is neither an unjustly maligned gem nor is it a fascinating train wreck of a movie. There are more than a few wonderfully executed characters and concepts, but the film quickly wears out its welcome and basically just sits there.

It was a project whose fate was practically sealed from the get-go. Call it the “Lone Ranger” syndrome. Rossini's Guglielmo Tell may be one swell opera, but its overture is far better known to American audiences as the theme for “The Lone Ranger.” Similarly, Popeye purists may prefer the delightful, original newspaper strips of EC Segar, but by 1980 most people thought of the sailor-man as a semi-retired animated cartoon character reduced to pitching fried chicken. Max and Dave Fleischer produced Popeye's best cartoons back in the 1930s; indeed, they were among the finest animated shorts ever. But, magical as they were, these cartoons bore only a passing resemblance to the world of Segar's “Thimble Theater.” (King Features, take note: a DVD boxed set of these classic shorts is long overdue.)

For the 1980 Popeye, the filmmakers largely abandoned the look of the Fleischer cartoons, opting instead for a return to the flavor of their original source, though the Fleischer influence is nonetheless felt throughout. In the wake of Superman (1978), the film of Popeye was given a sizeable budget, with Segar's port town of Sweethaven built full-scale on location in Malta. The elaborate production design was matched with equally detailed costumes and makeup (including Popeye's gigantic forearms), and Harry Nilsson was hired to write a dozen or so musical numbers.

The resulting story finds Popeye (Robin Williams, in his film debut) arriving in Sweethaven in search of his long-lost father. There he meets such familiar characters as Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall), her fiancé Bluto (Paul L. Smith), and hamburger-obsessed Wimpy (Paul Dooley). Olive soon breaks her engagement with an enraged Bluto while Popeye finds a baby, names it Swee'pea, and makes the child his “adoptid infink.”

The actors gives it their all, and are generally well-cast. Even critics who hated the picture agreed Duvall was born to play Olive Oyl, though Williams, Dooley, Donald Moffat (LBJ in The Right Stuff, here playing a tax collector) and Ray Walston (as Popeye's “pap,” Poopdeck Pappy) are equally fine. There are several effective sight gags, and Jules Feiffer's script has Williams muttering amusingly under his breath much as Jack Mercer did in the Fleischer cartoons. Most of Nilsson's songs are terrible, but Duvall's (intentionally) off-pitch “He Needs Me” is endearing and the opening “Sweethaven” number is almost good.

But after 20 minutes you've pretty much seen all there is to see. Segar's genius was in the quirkiness of his offbeat humor, not the depth of his characters. An oft-repeated criticism holds true here: what works in a six-minute cartoon cannot be sustained in a 114-minute feature. Perhaps the film might have worked better if Feiffer's script had concentrated more on the genuinely charming relationship between Popeye and Olive, and how Swee'pea brings them together. (The poignancy of these scenes is particularly surprising considering Robert Altman is perhaps the least sentimental director in American cinema.) Instead, the film seems more interested in showing off its production values, and tries too hard to be a living cartoon, a visually interesting but ultimately pointless and doomed ambition.

How is the Transfer?
Previously available (even on laserdisc) only in pan-and-scan format, Popeye has finally been released to DVD by Paramount Home Video in its original 2.35:1 Technovision aspect ratio, with 16:9 enhancement. Original prints were singularly grainy, but the DVD is sharp with good color and deep blacks, from the blue-green waters off the coast of the Malta location, to Olive Oyl's signature red-black dress.

Produced at a time when stereo sound was still making a comeback in movie houses, Popeye features a surprisingly robust, modern soundtrack. The 5.1 and Dolby Surround mixes for the DVD were, presumably, derived from those originally created for the 70mm blow-up version.

Special Features
It's a shame that Paramount opted to include no special features for this DVD. Since the days of laserdisc, Altman's work has frequently received special edition treatment, and there's little doubt a documentary or audio commentary about this film's troubled production would be fascinating. We can only hope Fox will spring for a Special Edition of Quintet.

Parting Thoughts
It's hard to imagine to whom Popeye was targeted. General audiences were unfamiliar with the Segar strips and left bemused by the film's quirky, Depression-era sensibility, while the incongruous musical numbers (among other things) put off fans of strip. Those expecting something like the classic Fleischer shorts were equally disappointed to find a film with familiar characters populating in an alien environment. Though not quite a disaster, Popeye isn't very amusing, despite many well-executed ideas.

#2 of 44 OFFLINE   Xenia Stathakopoulou

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Posted June 12 2003 - 06:10 PM

Thanks for the review, Stuart. I have always had a soft spot for this movie, since it made its debut way back in 1980. Its good to hear that the transfer was handled well.I think this is one of those movies, that in order for someone to like, you would have to have originally seen it at a very young age, i was 6 when it came out. In my opinion , ask anyone if they liked popeye when it came out and also how old they were at the time, and 99 percent of the time the answer is yes and theyre age anywhere from 6 to 13 years old. June 24th cant come fast enough !Posted Image
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#3 of 44 OFFLINE   Matt Wallace

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Posted June 12 2003 - 06:22 PM

I concur with Tony. It's less about cinematic history and more about fond memories and appreciation for pure quirkiness. I was 5 at the time and it was my first time going to a movie theater with my parents. Oh, how they must have loved me to sit through that at their ages then, but I am now enduring similar torture! LOL! Matt
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#4 of 44 OFFLINE   chrisMCG



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Posted June 12 2003 - 06:30 PM

Good review. I did enjoy this flick so much, and it's got a lot of charm. Not to mention Popeye really helped me get through a period where my forearms were the size of watermelons.

#5 of 44 OFFLINE   Dan Rudolph

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Posted June 12 2003 - 07:00 PM

I love this movie. Will buy it. It's a wacky musical and there haven't been many of those lately.
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#6 of 44 OFFLINE   DaViD Boulet

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Posted June 13 2003 - 12:20 AM

...But he's LARGE...

Always loved this quirky movie. It's on order Posted Image
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#7 of 44 OFFLINE   RAF


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Posted June 13 2003 - 01:17 AM

Sorry to upset the "bell curve" but in 1980 I was 38 years old and liked this movie a lot. But, then again, I often like certain movies that are not critically acclaimed (like this one and Hook, for example.) Thanks for the review.
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#8 of 44 OFFLINE   Joel Vardy

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Posted June 13 2003 - 02:02 AM

[quote] Sorry to upset the "bell curve" but in 1980 I was 38 years old and liked this movie a lot. But, then again, I often like certain movies that are not critically acclaimed (like this one and Hook, for example.) [quote]

I too at age 25 was amused with this film and particularly like it because of its 'quirkiness'. I imagined, growing up, watching Popye cartoons a film very much like the one that was made by Altman. I can't see anyone carrying out the role better than Williams. Duvall was also 'tone perfect' for the Olive Oyl character. I know that Williams does not look back on this film as one of his best but I do.


#9 of 44 OFFLINE   Enrique B Chamorro

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Posted June 13 2003 - 03:24 AM

A very important question for me, does the disc have English subtitles for all of the "under the breath" comments Popeye makes? I think 1/2 of the jokes are lost by us not hearing them clearly.

#10 of 44 OFFLINE   Ed St. Clair

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Posted June 13 2003 - 03:30 AM

[quote] High Concept filmmaking. [quote]
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#11 of 44 OFFLINE   Neil S. Bulk

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Posted June 13 2003 - 03:53 AM

[quote] Originally posted by StuartGalbraith:
The 5.1 and Dolby Surround mixes for the DVD were, presumably, derived from those originally created for the 70mm blow-up version. [quote] According to the list of 70mm releases in Widescreen Reviews "2001 Ultimate Widescreen Review DVD Movie Guide" Popeye never received a 70mm theatrical release.


#12 of 44 OFFLINE   TheLongshot



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Posted June 13 2003 - 04:04 AM

I don't know why people think this movie is so bad. I've always enjoyed it. Maybe it was just for those of us who were young, or young at heart. Casting was spot on, and it never takes itself all that seriously. Jason

#13 of 44 OFFLINE   Scott_J



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Posted June 13 2003 - 04:30 AM

[quote] A very important question for me,
does the disc have English subtitles [quote] English subs are listed as a "special feature" on the disc's back cover, which can be viewed at the following link. Paramount's usually pretty good with including them.


#14 of 44 OFFLINE   Jesse Skeen

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Posted June 13 2003 - 05:24 AM

How's the French track? Are the songs in French? I'll have to watch my CED of this again to see if I really want it.
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#15 of 44 OFFLINE   Enrique B Chamorro

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Posted June 13 2003 - 05:48 AM

The subtitle question was more directed to Stuart Galbraith concerning how detailed were the subtitles. Sometimes the subtitles will read "muttering" or "grumbling", rather than spell out the dialog that is normally hard to hear on the soundtrack. I was just watching "Frida" and there was a part where I had a hard time hearing the dialog. It helped that the dialog was spelled out in the middle of the descriptions of the sound effects. I am hoping Stuart will check out a few parts and report back about how detailed the subtitles are.

#16 of 44 OFFLINE   Michael St. Clair

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Posted June 13 2003 - 05:54 AM

I'll agree, the original Segar strips are the best, 'real' Popeye. The Sagendorf stips that followed were almost as good as the originals. The Popeye shorts from Fleischer were good but different, where the story simply supports the gags, whereas in the strips the story and characters were the key to the charm of the films. No, the best Popeye lived in strips, but the strips and the shorts are two different worlds. One can say the same of the extended Duck family of Scrooge, Donald, and the Nephews. The shorts (not much Scrooge, of course...he didn't work well in that format) are great, but give me the comic book adventures by Carl Barks any day. The Popeye movie works even less well than the Fleischer shorts, but I'll take it any day over any of the awful KFS color shorts that came after Fleischer. The premise and execution can't go the duration, maybe Altman should have targed about 80-95 minutes for the running time. It's not a bad film, though.

#17 of 44 OFFLINE   Gary->dee



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Posted June 13 2003 - 06:53 AM

While I was 10 years old when I saw this movie in the theater with my family(no small feat getting us all together to go to a movie), I don't think it's a matter of how old you were in 1980 watching this movie as it was the fact that you were there regardless of age. The old standby "you had to be there" was very true in the case of Popeye the movie. Looking back, that period of time was exciting because everything hadn't been driven into the ground yet and a movie like Popeye was mostly enjoyed because it brought to life all these wonderful and colorful characters we'd grown up watching via the many different versions of the Popeye cartoons. Amidst the large sets, comedic bits and musical numbers a genuine family movie played before us in 1980 and we loved it. Shortly there after I remember one of my younger cousins showing me the Popeye soundtrack album she had just got. You don't get memories like that with the Matrix or X2, however awesome those movies are.

Proud to say I saw it at the National in Westwood back in 1980 and I'll likely pick up this DVD on GP. Posted Image

#18 of 44 OFFLINE   StuartGalbraith



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Posted June 13 2003 - 07:20 AM

Good questions about the "muttering" -- that's something I should have addressed in the review. The answer is most but not all the mutterings are subtitled. There is no French audio track nor are there French subtitles, alas. Considering that HTF has readers from around the world, I realize I should be addressing foreign language options in future reviews as well. Thanks for staying on top of this stuff. Stuart

#19 of 44 OFFLINE   James David Walley

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Posted June 13 2003 - 11:48 AM

I don't want to get in a dispute with you, Stuart, but this film definetly did not have the reputation of a "disaster" when it opened. In fact, it got generally positive-if-mixed reviews. I think the bad reputation it acquired over the years was due to a couple of things: 1) Although it did decent business, it was nowhere near the blockbuster everyone had been hoping for, and 2) there were some legendary behind-the-scenes crises going on during production. Robert Evans, who was producing, got busted for coke during post-production; before that, on his way to Malta, he became separated from his suitcase that was carrying more "mood-enhancers," and Henry Kissinger had to get called in to prevent an international incident. Beyond that, there was a massive conflict between Evans and Altman on one side and Don Simpson (the studio executive supervising production). Evans was the "old Paramount" which had brought the world such films as the two Godfather pictures, Chinatown, Love Story and so on. He had been "eased out" in favor of the new regime, populated by people like Simpson and his future partner Jerry Bruckheimer, who went on to practically create the "high concept" philosophy. Putting it simply, Simpson and Evans hated each other, and they fought over everything behind the scenes. That sort of rumor-generating situation can easily give a film the "doomed" label among industry pundits, and I think that's what really happened to Popeye.
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#20 of 44 OFFLINE   Doug Schiller

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Posted June 13 2003 - 03:06 PM

"Not a bad film"????

You owe me an apology!

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